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Chris Rosenblum: Summer Jazz Celebration has plenty of stories to tell

Jazz vocalist Catherine Dupuis, a State College native, performs with the Friends Band during the JazzPa Festival in 2010. This year’s festival starts Thursday.
Jazz vocalist Catherine Dupuis, a State College native, performs with the Friends Band during the JazzPa Festival in 2010. This year’s festival starts Thursday. CDT file photo

For 30 years, Catherine Dupuis has lived in a capital city — of jazz.

Dupuis, who grew up in State College, became an acclaimed vocalist in New York, the land of Minton’s, The Blue Note, Birdland, Village Vanguard and other iconic jazz clubs.

Every year, though, she revisits her hometown with the same mission — to turn it and Bellefonte, for a few days at least, into hubs of swing, Dixieland, Latin, bop and blues.

Thursday to Sunday, Dupuis will lead the 2015 Summer Jazz Celebration as a featured performer and the president of JazzPA, the nonprofit corporation she helped start in 2005 to promote the music.

In its 11th year, the mostly free festival promises another rich lineup blending headliners such as Dupuis and the Friends Band and guitarist Gene Bertoncini — who has played with Tony Bennett, Wayne Shorter and other jazz legends — and local artists such as the Arthur Goldstein Trio, Deacons of Dixieland, Tommy Wareham Jazz Group and the Rick Hirsch 4.

“A new decade for us, which is unbelievable,” Dupuis said by phone from New York.

But she believes without a doubt in one thing. It keeps drawing her back to where her mother, sister and many friends still live.

“There’s something magical about Happy Valley,” she said.

She has recorded albums to glowing reviews. With some of New York’s top musicians, she has performed her eclectic repertoire of standards, American popular songs, contemporary numbers and Native American-infused jazz in many of the city’s most popular venues. Her illustrious and varied career has included two decades of national theatrical credits, as well as the well-respected off-Broadway Melting Pot Theatre Company, which she co-founded.

Yet she sings the praises of her original community with as much verve as she would a Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter lyric.

“I believe in the music, and I believe in the people,” she said. “So many of the people at home there, I love very much. I’m very glad to make a weekend happen.”

When her friend, the late local saxophonist Joe Alessandro, pictured the State College Jazz Festival and persuaded her to buy into his vision, she returned to her artistic roots.

Here she had developed her instrument, her voice, through State College Choral Society and Our Lady of Victory Church choirs, theater at the Boal Barn and private and school instruction. In 1976, she graduated from State College Area High School and began studying with the renowned singer Eileen Farrell at Indiana University’s School of Music.

Her childhood provided more than formative training. She arrived at college with a love for live music, nurtured by catching national jazz acts playing central Pennsylvania gigs between cities. She can still see Buddy Rich’s arms flying around his drum kit at a State College show.

While back in town to earn her Master of Fine Arts at Penn State, she sang with Skip Wareham’s dance band, Alessandro in the sax section. Then her performances shifted elsewhere — until a special summer day in 2005 opened her eyes to coming back.

A one-day affair, the first festival lasted into the evening at the South Hills School of Business and Technology as one group followed another on a single stage. Despite the heat, few in the audience left before the end.

“They’re all sitting in their lawn chairs listening to the music,” Dupuis recalled. “That just told me there was a hunger for it.”

From there, the festival grew. Expanding to two days in 2006, it brought in legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and began staging downtown shows. The 2007 festival added another day, the State Theatre as a venue and more local and regional artists.

In 2008, the JazzPA organization was born, and its main event, the summer festival, shifted its heart to Bellefonte. Alessandro died the next year, but the spirit of his original dream — a local celebration of jazz — lives on through Dupuis and her fellow board members and musicians.

“There are a lot of heroes here in town, a lot of heroes for this music,” she said.

She loves the mutual commitment: the slew of volunteers helping, musicians playing for discounted rates, hotels and bed and breakfasts contributing lodging for artists, businesses donating services. For instance, George Powell, owner of GP Audio, will handle sound for the Talleyrand Park concerts, and Music Mart owner Tom Gallagher is doing the same for other shows.

When you run a bare-bones festival without major arts grants, every little bit goes a long way.

“It’s amazing,” Dupuis said. “Not everybody is giving money, but everybody is finding a way to support the event and giving what they can give.”

They all do it for the music, for the communal joy hearing an intricate conversation among instruments can bring. Dupuis digs the camaraderie and shared purpose. Headliners, local stars, high school bands, master class students: They’re all keeping jazz fresh and vital, a living art form rather than a historical genre.

After 10 festivals, Dupuis remains at the forefront, the ringleader who pulls together all the moving parts. She’s not tired of the role.

It’s a pleasure to build a new generation of fans at the Jazz Storytelling concert at the Bellefonte Community Children’s Garden, where musicians will “aurally illustrate” stories.

She’s proud to inspire young musicians, to know that local youth who played in past festivals, such as Greg Johnson and Billy Test, have gone on to become professional jazz musicians.

And she’s delighted the keynote Saturday night concert at the American Philatelic Society’s Match Factory building — featuring Bertoncini, Russ Kassoff on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Dennis Mackrel on drums — will give the audience a Blue Note-caliber experience close to home.

“I’m a great believer, especially when it comes to jazz, that when people get a chance to hear it, and hear it done really well, they’ll say they like it,” Dupuis said.

She’s not only a jazz ambassador and educator. As a vocalist, she’s also a translator, a bridge for audiences unfamiliar with jazz’s sometimes arcane grammar and vocabulary.

“Now there’s a language that’s common, and it’s a language we speak,” she said. “Even if the music is strange, we have these words, and it’s a conduit to the language.”

Above all, jazz singing is storytelling for Dupuis, and she’s looking forward to spinning a few more tales this week — once more on her old stomping grounds.

“As I get older, I enjoy telling the story,” she said. “Hopefully in the telling and through the telling, it pulls us closer together, even though we think we’re not close, so that we find common ground.”

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